I watched On the Waterfront as a cinematic duty, fully expecting it not to be my cup of tea, partly having assumed that Marlon Brando was not my cup of tea. But On the Waterfront…I should have known, because usually there is a reason a film is celebrated. It it gripping, exciting drama, the kind of drama you want to lean in towards. But it was the ending in particular that impressed me, possessing an unexpected power that lingers after the film ends.
One the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a real incident, about dockworkers who are led by union boss/crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). He makes sure they get work and he gets a little extra in union dues. Anyone who does not play along does not get work. And anyone who rats on him gets killed.
When Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly aids Johnny Friendly in killing Terry’s friend Joey, he begins to feel unsettled by Johnny’s methods. Joey’s sister, Edie (Eve Marie Saint), wants answers and wants Terry to help her find who killed Joey. The priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), also wants Terry to help, but he wants all the workers to stand up against Friendly. Father Barry needs someone willing to go to the Crime Commission and testify…hopefully without getting killed. But everyone is too paralyzed with fear, too beaten down by life, and too locked in a mindset where the authorities are the enemy. One does not want to be a “cheese-eater,” a phrase repeated often throughout the story.
It’s partly a story of conflicted loyalty. Terry feels loyalty to his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who practically raised him, and to Friendly, who used to take him to ballgames and treats Terry well for the sake of his brother. But Terry also has a conscience bothering him and there seems no way to reconcile the two.
(Plot Spoilers Ahead) There is a marvelous scene when a member of the crime commission climbs to the roof where Terry keeps his pigeons. The man doesn’t directly challenge Terry or try to convince him to testify about Joey’s death. He simply and subtly manipulates Terry into admitting that Charley and Friendly used him while he was a boxer (having him take a dive), thus planting the seed that he really owes them no loyalty.
But what really convinces Terry to testify is when Friendly kills Charley. Friendly has begun to eat his own, so to speak, and now Terry’s motivation is more like revenge than anything else. He couldn’t quite do it for Edie’s sake, but he will do it for his own, since there is no longer that conflict of loyalty.
What really struck me, however, is that the climax of the film is not when Terry testifies. It comes afterwards. He testifies and suddenly his friends refuse to speak to him. All his friends, who resent Friendly, still turn their back on him and back up Friendly. It’s an amazing moment. Even Terry’s young friend turns his back on him, murdering all his pigeons. It’s actually shocking. That this child would feel so betrayed by Terry that he would murder the birds he’d cared for with Terry.
And that is when the entire dynamic of the film shifted for me. I spent a great deal of the film hating Friendly and wanting to see him brought to justice. But by the end of the film you realize that Friendly is not the problem. The problem is with the dockworkers. Even if Friendly had not existed, there would have been someone else.
In fact, it’s not even clear why, at the end, the dockworkers finally stand up against Friendly. Are they shamed by Terry – someone who is generally dismissed as a “bum” – or is it the sight of Friendly losing control of his temper to such an extant and thus revealing his vulnerability. Or is it the sight of Friendly and Terry fighting. Since Terry was always thought to be in the crowd with Friendly (because of being Charley’s brother), perhaps it is the visuals of watching them go at it (perhaps like a peasant watching a king fight with an aristocrat), thus revealing the weakness of the entire system.
On the Waterfront also won me over to Marlon Brando. I’ve always thought of him as a hyper-macho actor, but you can see why Edie falls for him. He may be a “bum” and not very bright, but he has a boyish charm and uncertainty, which sometimes manifests as a combination of aggressive shyness. He doesn’t know how to talk to Edie or express his feelings, but he doesn’t want anyone to see that, though Edie quickly catches on. I was also impressed with the hard-core and impassioned Father Barry, as played by Karl Malden. I grew up watching him in Pollyanna, the pastor under the thumb of Aunt Polly, and he’s loud and uncouth in The Hanging Tree, clearly possessing quite an acting range.